Can a judge use unsolved murders to sentence suspected serial killer Robert Gross?‘

Robert Gross is at the center of decades of stalkings and murders

Over the past four decades Robert Gross has been a prime suspect in several stalking and murder cases. Some of the people close to those cases go as far as to call him a serial killer. Why has he not been convicted for murder?
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Over the past four decades Robert Gross has been a prime suspect in several stalking and murder cases. Some of the people close to those cases go as far as to call him a serial killer. Why has he not been convicted for murder?

Robert J. Gross, the suspected serial killer convicted Wednesday in federal court in Kansas City on two counts of stalking and six gun crimes, could get life in prison, according to sentencing guidelines.

But it will be up to a judge to decide the sentence. And Gross’ past may factor into the decision.

Gross, 67, was convicted at trial of stalking women who worked at massage parlors in Johnson County and in Lawrence. He was also convicted of possessing guns as a convicted felon and other firearms violations.

The eight crimes he was convicted of carry sentences of five to 10 years each. Federal prosecutors have said he could be sentenced to 55 years based on a pre-sentence report that will be filed by federal probation officials.

That report will almost certainly contain information about crimes Gross has been convicted of in the past, which include drug and gun offenses in the 1980s, along with a conviction for terroristic threats against a former girlfriend in Kansas.

It is less clear how much federal prosecutors will be able to make of the numerous homicides, arsons and assaults in which Gross has been suspected but not convicted over the past 50 years, as detailed last year in a six-part series by The Kansas City Star.

Separate from the charges against him at trial this week, Gross has also long been a suspect in the killings of several women, including two who worked in the massage business, since the 1970s. However, Gross has never been charged in any homicide.

When Gross went before a judge on lesser charges in 1985, a pre-sentence report made reference to at least three homicides and two suspicious deaths, which were noted by Judge Scott Wright who remarked: “It just seems like a strange set of circumstances that everybody — I mean not everybody but all these women that he went with, they end up dead.”

After his trial this week, Gross’ new pre-sentence report will be considered by a judge at a sentencing hearing yet to be scheduled.

“That report gives, or should give. fairly detailed information about that individual as to his criminal history,” said Cindy Dodge, a criminal defense attorney who has represented clients in federal court. “There is a point system that is designed so the judge could give some proper weight when considering the sentence.”

The prior convictions would be part of the formula used to determine a recommended sentence under the federal sentencing guidelines.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, someone with Gross’ criminal record would face the top end of the sentencing grid. There is no minimum sentence.

Gross faces a maximum of five years for each stalking count, up to 10 years for each of three felon in possession of a firearm counts and up to five years each for three counts of having a firearm while under indictment.

The judge does not have to string all of the sentences together to reach the maximum, and judges often do not, but he could. It would mean giving Gross a 55-years prison sentence, which would almost certainly mean the rest of his life.

However, U.S. District Judge Gary Fenner, who presided over the criminal case, isn’t legally obligated to follow the recommendations, Dodge said.

The law allows Judge Fenner to consider uncharged crimes as “relevant conduct” in determining an appropriate sentence.

In an unrelated 2016 case, a federal judge sentenced Rashawn L. Long to 30 years in prison for drug and gun charges. During the sentencing hearing, a federal agent testified that Long, a known gang member, may be responsible for 23 murders.

Long pleaded guilty to the 2001 shooting death of another man but federal prosecutors said he was also responsible for the execution-style shooting murders of Myeisha J. Turner and her 3-year-old daughter on Aug. 23, 2013.

The maximum sentence called for in federal sentencing guidelines was 115 months, or less than 10 years. But prosecutors asked a judge to impose an even harsher sentence because of Long’s violent history. Long is currently scheduled to go to trial in another murder case.

However, recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings have limited what “uncharged or acquitted conduct,” may be presented at sentencing, said Stephen Hill, a former U.S. Attorney who now works in private practice.

Gross’ defense attorney, John P. O’Connor, may argue that presenting uncharged crimes violates the constitution and the defendant’s rights to a jury trial on those issues, Hill said.

“The judge may discourage the use of that kind of argument,” he said. “The prosecutors are going to have an uphill battle to get that in.”

Fenner would also consider the vulnerability of the victims, the violent nature of the crimes Gross was charged with and the use of guns or being a felon in possession of a firearm, Hill said.

“Practically speaking the judge may feel like the sentence he is able to hand down is within the sentencing guidelines,” he said. “The judge may feel that would the result in the defendant spending the rest of his life in jail and may be satisfied with that.”

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Glenn E. Rice covers crime, courts and breaking news for The Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 1988. Rice is a Kansas City native and a graduate of the University of Central Missouri.